August 15, 2014 6:01 pm

A blouse with superpowers

The honourable art of minimalism

The Honourable Woman, the political thriller currently reaching its apogee on the BBC, makes a compelling case for the continuing influence of minimalist power dressing. Hugo Blick’s eight-part conspiracy drama, rather dishonourably squandered within the holiday doldrums of the summer schedules (and now airing to US audiences on the Sundance channel), features such sumptuously luxuriously spare tailoring, svelte silhouettes and form-skimming power skirts that one could argue that the Célinification (so named after the influential label headed by the 41-year-old designer Phoebe Philo) of the moneyed elite is now complete. At least onscreen.

And thank God for that. Naturally, it’s a delight to see a television drama (one in an increasingly competitive field) in which women lead. But how much more enjoyable is The Honourable Woman for the fact that said woman is so deliciously well dressed.

Edward K Gibbon, the costume designer responsible for giving the drama its fashion kudos, has a veteran’s eye for modulations in contemporary style. Trained as a tailor, he was responsible for creating the kohl-rimmed angst-chic popularised by the teen drama Skins, and even gave Dr Who sartorial élan on his adventures through the space-time continuum.

In helping Maggie Gyllenhaal create the role of Nessa Stein, the pixie-haired Anglo-Israeli businesswoman and baroness at the centre of Blick’s drama, his instructions were simple: she needed to appear expensive but not high maintenance: “She’s a woman who must always look like she’s ready to go.” Hence his mood board featured: “Lots of pictures of Céline, Tilda Swinton and Jackie Kennedy, as well as rather more obtuse references like the photography of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, drawings by Henry Moore, and pictures of the Virgin Mary.”

The material trappings of stealth luxe inform every frame: Nessa may not carry a trophy bag but her coats are cashmere-soft and cut to perfection; Janet McTeer (who plays the MI5 senior grandee Dame Julia Walsh) wears marvellously slouchy masculine suits with crisp white shirts. Even with Katherine Parkinson’s character Rachel Stein, “the wife of a very rich man”, Gibbon swerved the cliché of the “Jewish mother loaded with jewels” to dress her in drapey, silken tunics that are two parts Grecian goddess, one part Cos.

“I wanted to create a world that was luxe and gorgeous,” Gibbon continues. “It was about aspirational dressing to a degree – but I didn’t want people to be watching a serious drama about Israeli-Palestianian relationships and be drooling over the clothes.”

. . .

Admission: while I have paid rapt attention to the complexities of the political intrigue, and debated the levels of sexual violence on screen, I have very much drooled over the clothes. Nessa’s pussycat-bow blouses, for example, which are copies of Yves Saint Laurent 1970s originals, fall with such sublime elegance that I wonder why I’ve bothered wearing shirts of any other type. And let’s discuss those panic-room negligees . . . 

No surprise The Honourable Woman has been identified as reflecting a ground shift in modern power dressing, especially as it follows a number of other television programmes offering an unexpectedly flattering picture of the female executive wardrobe. Witness the Calvin Klein-clad Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright, in House of Cards, or the creamy tonal palette worn by Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal (no stubborn stains to be seen there). See, too, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’s Selina Meyer, in Veep, a woman whose contour-control underwear is as painfully tight as the grip of her political ambition.

Together, the characters share a uniform appreciation for razor-sharp tailoring, neutral colours, immaculately fuss-free hair and a brutal enslavement to the treadmill. (As Louis-Dreyfuss observed when I spoke to her earlier this year, “Selina is the type of woman who works out every day – in full make-up.”)

But is such chic modernity representative of the real world? Maybe. Women like Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama, Angela Ahrendts, Marissa Mayer and Melinda Gates – each as Pilates-hewn, monochrome-sheathed and slick as the next – have persuaded me that minimalist power dressing is as much fact as fiction. So, too, Christine Lagarde, who accessorises her management of the International Monetary Fund with simple dark suits, a shock of silver hair and an exquisite deployment of pearls. One could hazard that even Angela Merkel has adopted a unique brand of minimalist rigour in her dogged insistence on wearing the same style of three-button box jacket day after day, after day.

As for me, I may not be managing the IMF, nor trying to broker peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. But I’m sure as hell getting me some of those pussycat-bow blouses.

Jo Ellison is the FT’s fashion editor; jo.ellison@ft.com; Twitter: @jellison22

This article has been amended since original publication

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